Cheating on the Brain

Carl Zimmer in his excellent blog, The Loom (do first read the post, then try the tests before scrolling down to the answer):

Carl_1Evolutionary psychologists argue that we can understand the workings of the human mind by investigating how it evolved. Much of their research focuses on the past two million years of hominid evolution, during which our ancestors lived in small bands, eating meat they either scavenged or hunted as well as tubers and other plants they gathered. Living for so long in this arrangement, certain ways of thinking may have been favored by natural selection. Evolutionary psychologists believe that a lot of puzzling features of the human mind make sense if we keep our heritage in mind.

The classic example of these puzzles is known as the Wason Selection Task. People tend to do well on this task if it is presented in one way, and terribly if it is presented another way. You can try it out for yourself.

Version 1:

You are given four cards. Each card has a number on one side and a letter on the other. Indicate only the card or cards you need to turn over to see whether any of these cards violate the following rule: if a card has a D on one side, it has a 3 on the other side.

Wason20cardsnumbers _________________________________________________________________________________

Version 2:

Now you’re a bouncer at a bar. You must enforce the rule that if a person is drinking beer, then he must be over 21 years old. The four cards below each represent one customer in your bar. One side shows what the person is drinking, and the other side shows the drinker’s age. Pick only the cards you definitely need to turn over to see if any of these people are breaking the law and need to be thrown out.

Wason2 _________________________________________________________________________________

Highlight the area between the Xs for the answers:

X The answer to version one is D and 5. The answer to version two is beer and 17. X

If you took these tests, chances are you bombed on version one and got version two right. Studies consistently show that in tests of the first sort, about 25% of people choose the right answer. But 65% of people get test number two right.

This is actually a very weird result. Both tests involve precisely the same logic: If P, then Q. Yet putting this statement in terms of social rules makes it far easier for people to solve than if it is purely descriptive.

More here.

Immunity, tumour suppression, and apoptosis: programmed cell death

Jennifer Viegas in New Scientist:

The most comprehensive study to date exploring the genetic divergence of humans and chimpanzees has revealed that the genes most favoured by natural selection are those associated with immunity, tumour suppression, and programmed cell death.

These genes show signs of positive natural selection in both branches of the evolutionary tree and are changing more swiftly than would be expected through random mutation alone. Lead scientist Rasmus Nielsen and colleagues at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, examined the 13,731 chimp genes that have equivalent genes with known functions in humans.

Research in 2003 revealed that genes involved with smell, hearing, digestion, long bone growth, and hairiness are undergoing positive natural selection in chimps and humans. The new study has found that the strongest evidence for selection is related to disease defence and apoptosis – or programmed cell death – which is linked to sperm production.

More here.

Arab-Americans Tell Their Own Story

Paul M. Barrett in the Wall Street Journal:

Arab_museumIn a compact stone and glass building here, the creators of the Arab American National Museum seek to set the record straight.

“If somebody else tells your story, it’s not your story,” Ismael Ahmed told me, “and in this case, we even think the story has been told with malice” by others. Mr. Ahmed heads the nonprofit social-services organization in Dearborn that built the museum, which opens today. By malice, he meant a desire to portray Arab-Americans as out of the mainstream, hostile toward the U.S. and possibly sympathetic toward terrorism.

The museum uses personal artifacts, skillfully distilled reminiscences and absorbing interactive displays to recount the tale of Arab immigration and accomplishment since the late 1800s. There is much to boast about, but just below the surface of the museum’s colorful exhibits–and sometimes emerging into full view–is a sense that corrections are needed; wrongs must be righted. It makes for a lively museum experience.

More here.

Max Weber Goes Global

Michael Novak in First Things:

WeberIn the century since Max Weber published The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, the book has been subject to severe and sustained criticism, much of it justified. Yet reflecting on its thesis in the light of worldwide economic developments during the past several decades reveals that, for all of his errors, Weber grasped something crucially important about the spiritual wellsprings of capitalism—something that has been neglected by capitalism’s radical critics no less than by many of its most enthusiastic champions.

As Weber began to contemplate a study of capitalism’s emergence in the early modern world, he pondered a fact that many others, including Adam Smith, had noted before him—namely, that there are many areas of the world in which people—even dedicated, persistent, industrious people—tended to work only to a target they set for themselves, after which they stopped. Yet Weber also noticed that some groups were gripped by what he perceived as a new and different work ethic, such that they felt motivated to earn as much as they could and go constantly beyond their earlier gains. What accounted for this difference in values?

More here.

Wednesday, May 4, 2005

Time Traveler Convention Planned for Saturday, May 7

Robert Roy Britt for

If you’re into time travel, mark your calendar for Saturday, May 7, 2005, when the first Time Traveler Convention will be held at MIT. Or if you miss it, perhaps you can wait a few years and attend anyway. That’s kind of what organizer Amal Dorai is banking on.

While scientists have not figured out the practical specifics of time travel, they also haven’t ruled it out as a possibility.

Dorai, a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science, hatched a rather ingenious plan to test the concept. Though obviously a stunt, the whole idea is a mindbender worthy of any scientifically inclined mind.

The gathering will be held at MIT’s East Campus Courtyard. Dorai gave the specific coordinates for anyone needing to plug them into some futuristic machine: 42:21:36.025°N, 71:05:16.332°W.”

The deadline for RSVP is today (wednesday) at midnight.

Why are IQ test scores rising around the globe?

Steven Johnson in Wired:

Twenty-three years ago, an American philosophy professor named James Flynn discovered a remarkable trend: Average IQ scores in every industrialized country on the planet had been increasing steadily for decades. Despite concerns about the dumbing-down of society – the failing schools, the garbage on TV, the decline of reading – the overall population was getting smarter. And the climb has continued, with more recent studies showing that the rate of IQ increase is accelerating. Next to global warming and Moore’s law, the so-called Flynn effect may be the most revealing line on the increasingly crowded chart of modern life – and it’s an especially hopeful one. We still have plenty of problems to solve, but at least there’s one consolation: Our brains are getting better at problem-solving.

More here.

The philosopher of photons

From Nature:

Enlightenment is hard work — especially when you mix philosophy with quantum physics. But the Dalai Lama is always keen to investigate areas of science, no matter how complex they seem. And in 1997, when he wanted to delve into the quantum world, one of the men he invited to India was Anton Zeilinger.Photon

Based at the University of Vienna in Austria, Zeilinger is committed to explaining his work to a broad audience. As a student, he was fascinated by both opera and the mathematical beauty of quantum mechanics. And although Zeilinger, who turns 60 in May, has just revived his old student hobby of playing walk-on parts at the Vienna State Opera House, it was fundamental physics that won his heart. Over the years, his scientific achievements, as well as his communication skills, have made him a media star, at least in his native Austria.

More here.

University of Chicago makes foolish move

In an almost unbelievable decision, the University of Chicago has denied Sean Carrol tenure. I may write later here about how ridiculous the system of tenure has become in academia, but meanwhile, I am sure Sean could use some bucking up, and we should encourage him not to let up on posting, thereby depriving us of his inimitable, rational, bright and clear voice. Please go to Preposterous Universe and leave a comment urging Sean to keep blogging. Here is how Sean has bravely announced the bad news:

Smc6The bad news is that I’ve been denied tenure at Chicago. It came as a complete surprise, I hadn’t anticipated any problems at all. But apparently there are a few of our faculty who don’t think much of my research. A stylistic clash, I imagine. And a handful of dissenters is all it takes to derail a tenure case. I don’t think there are many people in the outside world who believe that the University of Chicago is better off without me than with me, but there seems to be an anomalously high concentration of them among my own colleagues.

So now I am on the job market again. Which is sad, both because of the intrinsically demoralizing nature of the job market, and because I cannot tell you how much I love this city and the friends I have made here. It truly feels like home to me. But I’m hopeful of getting a position at some other great place and flourishing there — doing well is the best revenge.

In the meantime, though, blogging will likely be a low priority. I’m not going to stop, but my former ambition to put something up every day (no matter how lame) is going to be set aside as I concentrate on other things.

See what Mark Trodden has to say about Sean here.

Was Galileo Wrong?

Dr Tony Phillips and Patrick L Barry in First Science:

GalileoFour hundred years ago – or so the story goes – Galileo Galilei started dropping things off the Leaning Tower of Pisa: Cannon balls, musket balls, gold, silver and wood. He might have expected the heavier objects to fall faster. Not so. They all hit the ground at the same time, and so he made a big discovery: gravity accelerates all objects at the same rate, regardless of their mass or composition.

Nowadays this is called “Universality of Free Fall” or the “Equivalence Principle,” and it is a cornerstone of modern physics. In particular, Einstein crafted his theory of gravity, i.e., the general theory of relativity, assuming the Equivalence Principle is true.

But what if it’s wrong?

“Some modern theories actually suggest that the acceleration of gravity does depend on the material composition of the object in a very subtle way,” says Jim Williams, a physicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). If so, the theory of relativity would need re-writing; there would be a revolution in physics.

A group of NASA-supported researchers are going to test the Equivalence Principle by shooting laser beams at the Moon.

More here.

China’s Great Wall holds the key to quantum future

Paul Marks in New Scientist:

2497_infotechThe Great Wall of China is poised to play its part in pushing back the boundaries of quantum cryptography. Later this year a Chinese team, which has just broken the record for transmitting entangled particles, will test the feasibility of satellite-based quantum communication using the wall.

The Great Wall’s new role was revealed after Jian-Wei Pan of the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei and his colleagues successfully transmitted “entangled” photons through more than 7 kilometres of the Earth’s turbulent lower atmosphere without losing the photons’ fragile quantum properties.

More here.

Elitism has many dimensions: Is Bill Cosby Right?

Reihan Salam reviews Is Bill Cosby Right? (Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?) by Michael Eric Dyson, in The New Republic:

BillcosbyElitism has many dimensions. There is the contempt of the middle classes for the very poor. This has an old pedigree. This contempt is often strongest among working families only slightly removed from poverty. Thanks to intimate familiarity with the pathologies that scar the lives of the poorest among us, these families react sharply against the faintest whiff of laziness or violent behavior. And so the anxiety-ridden members of this lower middle class are quick to flee the inner cities that threaten to swallow up their children. Having grown up sheltered in one of the neighborhoods largely left behind, I know these attitudes well. Just to declare my own allegiances at the outset, I sympathize. But I don’t think “contempt” is the right word. “Fear” is more like it.

When you’ve been a victim of crime, or more pressingly when you’ve seen a relative incarcerated or tormented by drug addiction or institutionalized for yet another reason, you know that you’re living on a knife’s edge and that your relative security can easily dissipate as a result of one serious mistake. You could splurge at the wrong time, or your child could end up in the wrong crowd. Fear is pervasive and palpable. It makes life tense and uneasy, and while it can occasionally spill over into ugly resentments of the vandals and hooligans you’re careful to never look in the eye, mainly it just makes you tenaciously protective of the people and communities you love. This is the so-called elitism that, strikingly, Michael Eric Dyson chooses to savage in his fierce polemic, Is Bill Cosby Right? (Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?).

More here.

Tuesday, May 3, 2005

More on Alarm Clock Technology

From my post about clocky, you can probably guess that I have problems waking up in the morning.  In contrast to the irritation that clocky may cause–I don’t want to run around looking for a hidden clock first thing in the morning–SleepSmart:

. . . measures your sleep cycle, and waits for you to be in your lightest phase of sleep before rousing you. Its makers say that should ensure you wake up feeling refreshed every morning.

As you sleep you pass through a sequence of sleep states – light sleep, deep sleep and REM sleep – that repeats approximately every 90 minutes. The point in that cycle at which you wake can affect how you feel later, and may even have a greater impact than how long or little you have slept. Being roused during a light phase means you are more likely to wake up perky.

SleepSmart records the distinct pattern of brain waves produced during each phase of sleep, via a headband equipped with electrodes and a microprocessor.

(Hat tip to Roop.)

Seeing the Universe with Einstein’s Glasses

Michael Schirber at

A survey of 13 million galaxies and 200,000 quasars uses Einstein’s theory of gravity to confirm a dark side of the universe.

LensLight traveling billions of light years to reach us is bent by clumps of matter along its path. Albert Einstein, who is being remembered this year for his amazing scientific output from 1905, predicted this so-called gravitational lensing when he characterized gravity as the curvature of space-time.

Earlier attempts to measure the lensing of far-away quasars had failed to see an effect that matched the standard picture from cosmology – raising some doubts about the validity of that model. But an analysis of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, released last week, puts an end to the controversy.

More here.

Enron’s Selfish Genes

Last night I saw the excellent new documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. (My tangential remarks on it are here.) One strange point of interest is that Jeffrey Skilling, the architect of Enron’s massive fraud, was a huge fan of Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene. Something tells me he might have misunderstood the book. But, to be perfectly frank, I’ve run into a lot of people who misread that book, and…they always seem to be men trying to justify their own bad behavior. Surely this isn’t what Dawkins had in mind.

Little Boy, Big Apple

Js_7540_large Andrew Yang visits an exhibition of vintage Japanese  toys, curated by artist Takashi Murakami and writes about it for Metropolis magazine:

” In the years after Japan was defeated in World War II, the country went into a state of numbing shock. The atomic bombs dropped on Japan not only obliterated entire cities and wiped out generations of people, but also left the country’s citizens questioning their identity and culture. Some of the creative results of this post-war reflection are chronicled in Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture. Curated by pop-cult arbiter Takashi Murakami, the exhibit, which features work by 21 postwar Japanese artists, is on view through July 24 at New York’s Japan Society. Many of the pieces in the show are in the form of animated cartoons, comic books, and advertisements, rendered in the wildly popular Neo-Pop, anime, and manga styles.”

Yale and India

Ajay Gandhi in Economic and Political Weekly:

From January 2 to 8, 2005, Yale University’s president Richard Levin visited India. This unprecedented visit by the head of an elite American university signalled, in Levin’s words, that India was finally “emerging as a global economic and political power”. In between visits to the Indian prime minister and the chiefs of powerful Indian companies such as Infosys and Reliance Industries, Levin found time to lecture on Yale’s vision of ‘university citizenship’. Levin propounded with missionary zeal a notion of the ‘global university’ standing for ‘transcendent principles’ and embodying a ‘noble mission’. In so doing, he was continuing a tradition stretching back to Yale’s inception, whereby lofty rhetoric has disguised powerful self-interest.

Levin’s university is named after Elihu Yale, a fervid Anglican who served in the British East India Company (EIC) between 1670 and 1699 and was governor of Fort St George at Madras from 1687 to 1692. Yale’s history of support for missionary activities in the East Indies and Americas inspired a group of American Puritans in Connecticut to seek patronage for a college. His responsiveness culminated in a donation in 1718 towards the construction of the university’s first building, forever stamping it with his name. During his time in India, Levin noted Yale University’s commitment to educating ‘distinguished leaders’, and its focus on the “transparency and accountability of public and private institutions”. Curiously, Levin failed to mention Elihu Yale’s own record of leadership and accountability while in Madras. Yale’s governorship of Fort St George was marked not only by oppressive taxation and cruel punishments, but also by using the EIC’s power and money for personal gain, culminating in his dismissal in 1692.

More here. Thanks to my friend C.M. Naim for this article.

Sudan, Caputo, etc.

Kristof writes in the NY Times today that the Bush administration has now backed away from its activism regarding Sudan.

Finally, finally, finally, President Bush is showing a little muscle on the issue of genocide in Darfur.

Is the muscle being used to stop the genocide of hundreds of thousands of villagers? MugphilipcaputoNo, tragically, it’s to stop Congress from taking action.


From the fiction angle, Philip Caputo, whose Vietnam memoir A Rumor of War is a true classic, just published a new novel Acts of Faith that takes Sudan’s civil war as its setting. Reviews of the book can be found here, here, and here.

The Other 1905 Revolution

Joshua Foer reviews two books about Einstein, in The Nation:

In his 1902 book Science and Hypothesis, the French mathematician and physicist Henri Poincaré surveyed the landscape of modern physics and found three fundamental conundrums bedeviling his field: the chaotic zigzagging of small particles suspended in liquid, known as Brownian motion; the curious fact that metals emit electrons when exposed to ultraviolet light, known as the photoelectric effect; and science’s failure to detect the ether, the invisible medium through which light waves were thought to propagate. In 1904 a 25-year-old Bern patent clerk named Albert Einstein read Poincaré’s book. Nothing the young physicist had done with his life until that point foreshadowed the cerebral explosion he was about to unleash. A year later, he had solved all three of Poincaré’s problems.

“A storm broke loose in my mind,” Einstein would later say of 1905, the annus mirabilis, which John S. Rigden calls “the most productive six months any scientist ever enjoyed.” Between March and September, he published five seminal papers, each of which transformed physics. Three were Nobel Prize material; another, his thesis dissertation, remains one of the most cited scientific papers ever; and the fifth, a three-page afterthought, derived the only mathematical equation you’re likely to find on a pair of boxer shorts, E = mc2.

More here.

Ugly Children May Get Parental Short Shrift

Nicholas Bakalar in the New York Times:

Ugly583Parents would certainly deny it, but Canadian researchers have made a startling assertion: parents take better care of pretty children than they do ugly ones.

Researchers at the University of Alberta carefully observed how parents treated their children during trips to the supermarket. They found that physical attractiveness made a big difference.

The researchers noted if the parents belted their youngsters into the grocery cart seat, how often the parents’ attention lapsed and the number of times the children were allowed to engage in potentially dangerous activities like standing up in the shopping cart. They also rated each child’s physical attractiveness on a 10-point scale.

More here.